That space helmet was really heavy, I was sweating!” laughs Arlo Parks. She’s recalling shooting the video for “Blades” from her second album, My Soft Machine. “We’d attached the big camera to the top to get those claustrophobic shots and all that weight was pressing down on my neck. But I’ve always loved the video for Radiohead’s “No Surprises” [in which Thom Yorke wore a helmet that gradually filled up with water] and I wanted to give a nod to that influence…”
While Yorke was singing about being trapped in “a job that slowly kills you” back in 1998, Parks’ new song finds her describing “struggling, choking on my words”. The London-born singer-songwriter – who won the Mercury Prize for her debut album, Collapsed in Sunbeams – soothed listeners through the latter days of the pandemic with gently jazzy meditations on the simple joy to be found in “feeding a cat or slicing artichoke hearts”.
But, having been so open about her personal life in her songs, she struggled with the “invasive” questions the press threw at her. “Despite me saying that I was uncomfortable, they just kept coming,” she told GQ. She was only 21 at the time, a gentle introvert who hadn’t expected the poems she’d set to music – alone, in an AirBnB – to launch her into the mainstream. Then, last September she cancelled some US shows, saying she felt “exhausted and dangerously low”. A sentiment she expands on new song, ‘I’m Sorry’ on which she complains of “working incessantly, like a wasp, feeling trapped and crazed… it’s really just hard to trust anyone”. No wonder the poor kid wanted to stick a bubble on her head and shut out the noise.
I’d expected her to be more on edge when she phones from a London hotel. But she sounds happy and relaxed to the point of sleepiness – all soft coos and downy giggles. “I’m good, so good,” she assures me, “just having a coffee…” I’ve been warned she’s “not comfortable talking about personal issues surrounding race, sexuality or mental health” and agreed to avoid those topics. So she knows she’s in a safe space. “Although I just came from LA, so I’m feeling London’s a little… grey? I need to adjust to the English spring!”
It’s been a year since Parks moved from Hammersmith (where she was raised as Anaïs Oluwatoyin Estelle Marinho, a name she still uses off stage) to the Los Angeles home she shares with her girlfriend, 27 year old rapper/singer Ashnikko, and their “adorable” black pomapoo, Wednesday. She tells me that California “feels like home – I’m missing it, missing them…” She “still connects to London” because “it’s where my family live, where I first started people-watching, writing and performing music”. But she’s enjoyed “stretching out” into California’s wide, wild horizons.
“I felt the need for a new adventure,” she explains. “I felt a sense of curiosity, wanting to approach my creativity through a different lens. I wanted to meet new people. As a creative person you’re constantly hunting for fresh inspiration and out there I’ve been flooded with a whole new set of sensory experiences, exploring the flora and fauna of a new geography.”
Parks loves to fill her lyrics with references to fruit and flowers, creating sonic still lives – My Soft Machine will probably be 2023’s only release to give rhododendrons a shout-out. In California, she’s been enjoying the “lovely, flowing lilac” of the jacaranda blossom and the “vibrant pink” of its papery bougainvillea, which she admires for “pushing through and thriving” even among the skyscrapers of downtown LA. She’s grateful for the plant’s demonstration that gentleness still has its place.
“We’ve had more rain than is usual,” she says, “so when I was out in the desert for Coachella, the landscape was just bathed in yellow flowers, but when I looked up the mountains were covered in snow.” She pauses, realising she’s forgotten the most important thing: “And the ocean! I’ve never lived by the ocean this way. It’s amazing to swim and sit and reflect and write by the ocean…”
While fellow singer-songwriter Lewis Capaldi has spoken about the pressure of producing new material to “brand” expectations in America’s corporate songwriting rooms, Parks says she’s “not felt that at all”. Partly because she’s a “notoriously private writer”. She prefers to nurture miniature worlds to maturity – like Terraria – before sharing them. “Any feedback – positive or negative – can throw you off the essence of a song. Keeping your voice, your vision undiluted is important”. In a patriarchal culture, is it also a feminist act? “Definitely!”
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The downside of Parks’ self-contained process is that she becomes her own harshest critic. “My drive, ambition, discipline all comes from me. But also my doubt and workaholism. I’m the source of it all.” She admits that she annoys herself when she gets “too caught up in lovely words, like when I was a kid with a thesaurus. I’m always having to ask myself: what’s this song about? Where is it going?” Her conversation can feel a little like that too. The flow of her drowsy-dreamy imagery makes it hard for me to work out if she’s answering my questions.
When British artists hop across the pond, their sound often swells to scale. Does Parks think this has been the case for her? “Definitely,” she says. “[Collapsed in Sunbeams] had a sense of minimalism. The drums were always warm. The instrumentation was a soothing salt bath for the words to sit in. There was no abrasive sound. This time I felt a need for adventure, experimentation. I wanted to bring the instrumentation to the forefront.”
Namely, she wanted to be more blunt about her influences, such as Nineties indie and trip hop. She’s a huge fan of Portishead, Yo La Tengo and Paramore. The vibraphone melody and gauzy harmonies of “Pegasus”, featuring radically honest indie-folk superstar Phoebe Bridgers, float over a clattering beat that nods back to Massive Attack. Parks tells me she was particularly pleased with “the distorted My Bloody Valentine guitar sound we used at the end of ‘Puppy’.” It turns out that the metallic grind actually comes from a synth that her producer Buddy Ross was playing.
She says Ross – best known for his work with Frank Ocean, Haim and Bon Iver – “warped [it] to create a chaotic, frenetic balance” to her ethereal vocals. This is particularly effective as the song is addressing a friend’s grief following the death of his mother. Bereavement is one of many dark themes addressed on My Soft Machine. The album opens with a drum-backed spoken word track, over which Parks calmly states: “Almost everyone that I love has been abused/ and I am included/ I feel so much guilt that I could not guard more people from harm.” Yearning for lost innocence, she wishes she were “seven and blameless/ Going over the handlebars/ Pollen sniffling over grazes.” Against the tangy, East Asian semitone twangs of “Impurities”, she expresses gratitude for her ability to “radiate like a star” when her lover embraces “all my impurities, and I feel clean again.”
Without getting too personal, Parks says she wanted to be honest about “the grit, the things that you can’t wash off, that follow you”. But she also wanted to pay tribute to “the people who make you feel radiant, who see there is something in you that is beautiful. I wanted to capture those contrasts, the softness and the machine, the numbness and elation. I feel the polarity.”
Still identifying more as a fan than an artist, Parks admits that her rapid rise to fame has been a little disorienting. “I never expected this many people to be listening to what I have to say, so I feel very humbled by the attention. I’m not the kind of person who ‘always knew this was gonna happen’, y’know?” Backstage at festivals she initially found it “difficult being surrounded by people who inspired me. It’s difficult to feel yourself as being deserving of being among them. Especially people you’ve listened to for a long time. I’ve been listening to Phoebe Bridgers since I was 16.”
She’s recently been describing Bridgers as a big sister and is clearly awed by “the way her influence stretches into so many different pockets of music”. She gushes over the new album by boygenius, the critically adored singer-songwriter supergroup comprising Bridgers, Lucy Dacus and Julien Baker, and the female solidarity that make them a revolutionary beacon of frank friendship. Women in the music scene, after all, have too often been set up as rivals. “‘True Blue’ is definitely my favourite of their new songs,” she says. “That line: ‘I can’t hide from you like I hide from myself’ is just… sooo special. They exuded such collective prowess when I saw them at Coachella.”
Although Parks famously says she “can’t dance”, she’s filled My Soft Machine with danceable beats and even includes a line about dancing to Enya. “I still can’t dance,” she laughs. “I haven’t changed! But I love to move intuitively when I’m on stage. I don’t really think about what my body is doing.” In front of an audience, the thoughtful introvert experiences a sudden rush of energy. “I want to jump, stamp, rush up to the barrier. It’s a physical release as well as an emotional one. After a show I’m drenched in sweat and completely spent.” So that although she struggles with insomnia she always sleeps well after a gig. “I come off stage. Eat dinner. Have some tea and watch some silly telly. Then I completely crash out within half an hour.”
When it comes to touring My Soft Machine, Parks is determined to avoid another burnout. Before 2010, most musicians were expected to push through their schedules, with often disastrous consequences for their mental health. But Parks is part of a push back that has seen acts such as Wet Leg, Justin Bieber, Shawn Mendes and Sam Fender all cancel recent shows to prioritise their wellbeing.
“That last tour was too much,” she says. “I felt where my boundary was and I pushed past it. You have to be honest with yourself. If you want a long career you need to take it at the right pace.” And, while at ease with the fact that “my popularity is bound to ebb and flow”, Parks has plans for a long, creative career. “I’d like to write a film script, and a novel at some point,” she says. She wants to enjoy quality time at home, cooking with her “patient” partner then have more adventures.
Would she ever consider trying on that space helmet for real and embarking on some extra-terrestrial travel? She gasp-laughs. “No, no, no, noooo!! That would send me into an existential spiral and I would never be the same again. It sounds terrifying. No thanks. I’ll stick with the fruits and flowers of this planet!”
‘My Soft Machine’ is out now